TGRRL: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams.

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

The_Hitchhikers_Guide_to_the_Galaxy

 

And so begins one of science-fiction and comedy’s most highly prized works: Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

It’s a rather unassuming beginning; it’s clever, but unremarkable. The first sentence is long and not particularly catchy, which is exactly how all the writing guides tell you not to do it. It gives no real hint of what it to come, or the many, many scenes and lines for which this book is famous. If you stopped here, you’d never know.

And that, friends, would be a shame. The Great Reddit Reading List was ordered according to the number of votes each book received, and there are good reasons why this tiny, once-obscure volume comes in at number one. I can very nearly guarantee that even if you haven’t read it, you’ve heard of it; or at least you’ve heard of one of its adaptations. And all of this is for one simple reason: Douglas Adams was a comedic master.

Truthfully, there’s not much I can say about the book, and its subsequent “trilogy” of five books total which hasn’t already been said. (I’m not counting And Another Thing, the alleged “book six” by Eoin Colfer; it’s certainly entertaining, but it’s no Adams. That’s not at all an insult; no one else could be Adams.) I don’t really intend to try, at any rate; you’ll find that with these reviews, I’m less interested in critiquing the book and more in giving an idea of what it meant to me. After all, it’s our experiences with books that make us passionate about them, and that make other people want to read them. This book has been dissected at great length in more reviews than I can count, and justifiably so. And so:

I won’t say that this was my first work of science fiction or comedy. I had been reading for years before I discovered Hitchhiker’s Guide at about the age of nine or ten, and had been into science fiction for most of that time. In fact, the first “big thing” for me in science fiction was Doctor Who (and if you’ve delved deep into this site, or its sister site, The Time Lord Archives, you know it’s still a big thing for me!), which coincidentally was also instrumental in Adams’s life. He wrote three successful serials for the Fourth Doctor’s era (one of them, Shada, only failed because of a workers’ strike, not because of anything about the story) and a few more unused pitches; and he served as script editor for the 1979 season of Doctor Who. His character of Professor Chronotis, from the unfinished Shada, went on to feature in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, which has recently been adapted for television by the BBC.

Still, Hitchhiker’s Guide was a formative work for me. Everything is new when you discover it for the first time; looking back, I’m sure I wore out my sci-fi-loving dad with “42” jokes that he had known for years. From this book I learned that science fiction doesn’t have to be Star Trek serious; I learned that adventures don’t have to be as grand as Star Wars to be fun. I learned to appreciate wry and subtle humor (and I know what you’re thinking: Adams, subtle? Never! But consider his comedy against most American televised comedy, which would have been my only point of comparison, and I think you’ll see my perspective). I’m not accomplished at writing it myself yet, but I try to incorporate a little as I can. I leaned that absurdity in literature doesn’t have to equate to pointlessness; it can tell a story just as well as earnestness, or drama.

The fun in Hitchhiker’s Guide is in the sharing. This was the first book that ever became a social activity for me—the first book with jokes so widely known that I could laugh about them with, well, nearly anybody. They were certainly fun to read for myself, but they were so much more fun when passed around with a wink and a nudge and—sometimes—a guffaw. Now that I’m older, I’m passing them on to my children; my oldest daughter is eleven, about the same age as I was when I read the book, and we find ourselves passing Guide jokes over the dinner table while my wife (her stepmom) rolls her eyes at us. (She’s in on the joke, too; she mostly rolls her eyes when we get the jokes out before she does.) My daughter and her younger brother, age 9, are both math aficionados in school, and secretly I think it bugs them both that the answer (“42”) doesn’t match the question (“What do you get if you multiply six by nine?”, which we don’t discover until The Restaurant at the End of the Universe)—but that’s the beauty of the absurdity in Adams’s work.

And that’s that. For personal reasons, I’ll be cutting off here for today; but if you’ve never read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, give it a shot! And while you’re here, check out the rest of The Great Reddit Reading List. Next time: We’ll take a look at a particularly famous dystopian novel, George Orwell’s 1984. See you there!

The Great Reddit Reading List

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The Great Reddit Reading List!

Back in September, I posted a reading challenge, which you can find here. It gave categories of books, one for each week over a year, but it didn’t recommend specific titles; it leaves that up to the reader. Today, I want to look at the other side of the equation, and also launch a new occasional feature: The Great Reddit Reading List!

A few years ago, shortly after I joined Reddit, I was browsing the /r/books community when I came upon a post that mentioned the “Reddit’s Favorite Books” top 200 list. A little research took me to the original list, posted in 2010. (See below for links!) This list was compiled from several poll posts, and constitutes a checklist of sorts of the most popular books in the /r/books community. I’ve since expanded it with input from a few more recent lists, bringing the total up to 265 entries. (I’ll add it to the end of this post, and also make it a page on the site with a link in the sidebar.)

I had read about fifty of the original two hundred entries when I discovered the list. Since then, I’ve added approximately another forty. I say “entries” and not “books”, because some of the entries listed will be a series of books rather than an individual volume within the series. That’s an artifact of the standard the original compiler used to create the list; in some cases, both an individual book and the series in which it consists would get high numbers of votes, because there was not much regulation of the entries submitted. No one was trying to enforce any rule that it must be a single volume; therefore series often made the list. With that said, I’ve actually read well over a hundred, if we count all the volumes in a series; but I’m going to count each named series as only one entry.

So, what’s on the list? It’s a surprisingly eclectic mix. There are a number of classics, many of which originated in other languages. There are a large number of newer, popular books, as well, as one might expect given that Reddit’s population skews toward the young adult age group. Fiction is certainly the larger division of the list, but non-fiction is well represented, and even a few textbooks made the list. Science and philosophy are well represented. Books since 2010 are not as well represented, because that is the year in which the original list was compiled; however you will find some newer books in the list post-200, as those books were added to the list in 2016.

Certain authors appear repeatedly (and that’s aside from cases where a series is present). Neil Gaiman is far and away the author with the most entries present; about half of his novels are represented, and at least one of his graphic novels. Stephen King has a number of entries, as do William Faulkner and Neal Stephenson. Ursula K. Le Guin appears a few times. Fyodor Dostoyevsky tops the classical authors, with three entries. Kurt Vonnegut is popular. Male authors far outnumber female, but I think that is less a reflection on the list and more on the state of reading and writing in the world in general—many people, most far more qualified than me, have discussed that at length in other sources, and continue to do so.

books snoo

So, then: A new feature here! I’ve been slowly working my way through this list for a few years. I want to pick up my pace and my efforts, and in the process, post my thoughts about these books as I work through them. I confess that I haven’t been reading these in order; I made an attempt to do so, but it didn’t take long for my attention to wander. Therefore, the entries may not be in order, though we should be good for the first thirty or so. In cases where I’ve previously read the books, I’ll work from memory and research as much as possible; some cases may need a full re-read, though. I expect to get about one post per week from this feature. This post today is already going to be long enough, as the list will be attached; therefore we’ll begin with the next post. (I’ve also included links to the original Reddit posts: Here (original list), here (discussion post), and here (2016 additions)

And so, without further ado, I present the Great Reddit Reading List! How many have you read? What are your favorites? Thanks again, and happy reading!

Title Author
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams
1984 George Orwell
Dune Frank Herbert
Slaughterhouse 5 Kurt Vonnegut
Ender’s Game Orson Scott Card
Brave New World Aldous Huxley
The Catcher in the Rye J.D. Salinger
The Bible
Snow Crash Neal Stephenson
Harry Potter (series, 6 books) J.K. Rowling
Stranger in a Strange Land Robert A. Heinlein
Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! Richard P. Feynman
To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee
The Foundation Saga (series, 7 books) Isaac Asimov
Neuromancer William Gibson
Calvin and Hobbes Bill Watterson
Guns, Germs, and Steel Jared Diamond
Catch-22 Joseph Heller
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Robert M. Pirsig
Siddhartha Herman Hesse
The Selfish Gene Richard Dawkins
Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid Douglas Hofstadter
Tao Te Ching Lao Tse
House of Leaves Mark Z. Danielewski
The Giver Lois Lowry
Crime and Punishment Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Animal Farm George Orwell
A People’s History of the United States Howard Zinn
The Lord of the Rings (series, 3 books) J.R.R. Tolkien
Ishmael Daniel Quinn
A Brief History of Time Stephen Hawking
Lolita Vladimir Nabokov
The Count of Monte Cristo Alexandre Dumas
His Dark Materials (series, 3 books) Philip Pullman
The Stranger Albert Camus
<Various Works> Dr. Seuss
The Road Cormac McCarthy
Lord of the Flies William Golding
The Monster at the End of This Book Jon Stone, Michael Smollin
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Hunter S. Thompson
A Short History of Nearly Everything Bill Bryson
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Phillip K. Dick
One Hundred Years of Solitude Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Art of War Sun Tzu
How to Win Friends and Influence People Dale Carnegie
Flowers for Algernon Daniel Keyes
The Hyperion Cantos Dan Simmons
A Confederacy of Dunces John Kennedy Toole
U.S. Dec. of Independence, Constitution, B. of R. Various
Cat’s Cradle Kurt Vonnegut
A Canticle for Leibowitz Walter M. Miller, Jr.
The Odyssey Homer
Fahrenheit 451 Ray Bradbury
A Song of Ice and Fire (series, 5 books currently) George R. R. Martin
The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Brothers Karamazov Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Ringworld Larry Niven
A Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
The Art of Deception Kevin Mitnick
The Little Prince Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Freakonomics Stephen Dubner, Steven Levitt
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress Robert A. Heinlein
The Omnivore’s Dilemma Michael Pollan
Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad
The Forever War Joe Haldeman
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain
Lies My Teacher Told Me James Loewen
Notes from Underground Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Everybody Poops Taro Gomi
On the Origin of Species Charles Darwin
The Autobiography of Malcolm X Malcolm X, Alex Haley
John Dies at the End David Wong
The Communist Manifesto Karl Marx
Contact Carl Sagan
A Clockwork Orange Anthony Burgess
The Prince Niccolo Macchiavelli
Atlas Shrugged Ayn Rand
The Diamond Age Neal Stephenson
War and Peace Leo Tolstoy
The Stand Stephen King
The Dharma Bums Jack Kerouac
The Hobbit J.R.R. Tolkien
Moby Dick Herman Melville
The Unbearable Lightness of Being Milan Kundera
Why People Believe Weird Things Michael Shermer
Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media Edward Herman, Noam Chomsky
Asimov’s Guide to the Bible Isaac Asimov
The Old Man and the Sea Ernest Hemingway
Collapse Jared Diamond
Infinite Jest David Foster Wallace
Don Quixote Miguel de Cervantes
Chaos James Gleick
American Gods Neil Gaiman
Starship Troopers Robert A. Heinlein
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time Mark Haddon
You Can Choose to be Happy Tom G. Stevens
The Geography of Nowhere James Howard Kunstler
All Quiet on the Western Front Erich Maria Remarque
Candide Voltaire
Mein Kampf Adolf Hitler
The Girl Next Door Jack Ketchum
In Defense of Food Michael Pollan
The Dark Tower (series, 8 books) Stephen King
Fight Club Chuck Palahniuk
The Greatest Show on Earth Richard Dawkins
The Making of a Radical Scott Nearing
The Turner Diaries Andrew McDonald
The Scar China Mieville
Steppenwolf Herman Hesse
Going Rogue Sarah Palin
120 Days of Sodom Marquis de Sade
Rendezvous with Rama Arthur C. Clarke
Oryx and Crake Margaret Atwood
Beyond Good and Evil Friedrich Nietszche
Gravity’s Rainbow Thomas Pinchon
Naked Lunch William Burroughs
Childhood’s End Arthur C. Clarke
Of Mice and Men John Steinbeck
The Book of Ler M.A. Foster
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark Carl Sagan
Johnny Got His Gun Dalton Trumbo
Cryptonomicon Neal Stephenson
Watership Down Richard Adams
Breakfast of Champions Kurt Vonnegut
Civilization and Capitalism Fernand Braudel
Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs Chuck Klosterman
A Fire Upon the Deep Vernor Vinge
The Saga of Seven Suns (series, 7 books) Kevin J. Anderson
American Psycho Bret Easton Ellis
The Mote in God’s Eye Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle
The Chomsky Reader Noam Chomsky
The Panda’s Thumb Stephen Jay Gould
Flatland Edwin Abbot
On the Road Jack Kerouac
The God Delusion Richard Dawkins
The Classical Style Charles Rosen
Here Be Dragons Sharon Kay Penman
An American Life Ronald Reagan
Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space Carl Sagan
The Little Schemer Daniel P. Friedman, Matthias Felleisen
Life in the Woods Henry David Thoreau
Black Lamb, Grey Falcon Rebecca West
Thus Spake Zarathustra Friedrich Nietszche
Sandman Neil Gaiman
The Game Neil Strauss
Good Omens Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman
Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis
Walden Henry David Thoreau
The Collapse of Complex Societies Joseph Tainter
The Cthulhu Mythos (series, varying accountings) H.P. Lovecraft
The Stars My Destination Alfred Bester
The Pillars of Earth Ken Follett
The Prince of Nothing R. Scott Bakker
Perdido Street Station China Mieville
Man’s Search for Meaning Viktor Frankl
The Wasteland T.S. Eliot
The Kite Runner Khaled Hosseini
Pi to 5 Million Places
The Blank Slate Steven Pinker
The Dispossessed Ursula K. Le Guin
Guts Chuck Pahlaniuk
Fear and Trembling Søren Kierkegaard
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Ken Kesey
Kafka on the Shore Haruki Murakami
Ulysses James Joyce
Macbeth William Shakespeare
Basic Economics Thomas Sowell
Atheism: The Case Against God George H. Smith
The Handmaid’s Tale Margaret Atwood
For Whom the Bell Tolls Ernest Hemingway
Sophie’s World Jostein Gaarder
Women Charles Bukowski
Red Mars Kim Stanley Robinson
We Need to Talk About Kevin Lionel Shriver
How We Die Sherwin B. Nuland
Philosophical Investigations Ludwig Wittgenstein
The Singularity is Near Ray Kurzweil
The Day of the Triffids John Wyndham
The Long Walk Stephen King as Richard Bachman
Blood Meridian Cormac McCarthy
The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are Alan Watts
The Wheel of Time (series, 15 books) Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson
The Elegant Universe Brian Green
A Suitable Boy Vikram Seth
Book of the New Sun Gene Wolfe
King Lear William Shakespeare
The Power of Myth Joseph Campbell
The Voyage of Argo: The Argonautica Apollonius of Rhodes
The Baroque Cycle Neal Stephenson
Nichomachean Ethics Aristotle
Long Walk to Freedom Nelson Mandela
Cloud Atlas David Mitchell
The Master and Margarita Mikhail Bulgakov
The Chrysalids John Wyndham
The Occult Colin Wilson
Cosmos Carl Sagan
The Fountainhead Ayn Rand
Hamlet William Shakespeare
The Hero with a Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell
The Name of the Wind Patrick Rothfuss
Speaker for the Dead Orson Scott Card
The Fault in Our Stars John Green
The Sirens of Titan Kurt Vonnegut
The Sun Also Rises Ernest Hemingway
The Da Vinci Code Dan Brown
The Way of Kings Brandon Sanderson
Never Let Me Go Kazuo Ishiguro
The Perks of Being a Wallflower Stephen Chbosky
A Farewell to Arms Ernest Hemingway
East of Eden John Steinbeck
A Tale of Two Cities Charles Dickens
The Things They Carried Tim O’Brien
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo Stieg Larsson
The Sound and the Fury William Faulkner
Alive Piers Paul Read
The Chronicles of Narnia (series, 7 books) C.S. Lewis
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle Haruki Murakami
A Wrinkle in Time Madeleine L’Engle
The Dresden Files (series, 15 books currently) Jim Butcher
The Shining Stephen King
The Wise Man’s Fear Patrick Rothfuss
Where the Red Fern Grows Wilson Rawls
The Martian Andy Weir
The Lies of Locke Lamora Scott Lynch
No Country for Old Men Cormac McCarthy
Neverwhere Neil Gaiman
The Crying of Lot 49 Thomas Pynchon
Ready Player One Ernest Cline
The Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde
As I Lay Dying William Faulkner
Fifty Shades of Grey E.L. James
The Left Hand of Darkness Ursula K. Le Guin
The Time Traveller’s Wife Audrey Niffeneger
The Devil in the White City Erik Larson
The Ocean at the End of the Lane Neil Gaiman
11/22/63 Stephen King
Great Expectations Charles Dickens
Looking for Alaska John Green
The Man in the High Castle Phillip K. Dick
The Name of the Rose Umberto Eco
Children of the Mind Orson Scott Card
Gone with the Wind Margaret Mitchell
The Once and Future King T.H. White
Love in the Time of Cholera Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Colour of Magic Terry Pratchett
Anathem Neil Gaiman
The Book Thief Markus Zusak
Salem’s Lot Stephen King
Norwegian Wood Haruki Murakami
The Shadow of the Wind Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Wanted Patricia Potter
Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy
A Prayer for Owen Meany John Irving
1Q84 Haruki Murakami
Stardust Neil Gaiman
All the Pretty Horses Cormac McCarthy
The Night Angel Trilogy Brent Weeks
Night Elie Weisel
Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen
A Thousand Splendid Suns Khaled Hosseini
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler Italo Calvino
Under the Dome Stephen King
Old Man’s War John Scalzi
The Trial Franz Kafka

 

Short Story: The Light of Her Phone

This short story was written in response to a prompt on Reddit‘s /r/WritingPrompts subreddit. This particular prompt is an image prompt; I’ve borrowed my title from the title of that post, and the original image is included and linked below. Credit to DeviantArt user TomTC (Tommy Chandra) for the image, and to Redditor /u/Syraphia for the prompt. I’ve posted this story on Reddit in response to the prompt, as well.

I’ve opted to set this story in a larger fantasy world on which I’ve been working. Consequently, there’s a bit at the end that may sound like an infodump; I try to avoid that as much as possible, but as this piece is tied into that larger world, I found it necessary to include some of that linking information here. Still, I hope this story is enjoyable. Thanks for reading!

paranormal_girl__practice__by_tomtc-dbnclwe

Paranormal Girl (practice sketch) by TomTC

It was only when the sun set that she began to worry. Rather, she assumed the sun had set; it was getting dark, but the patches of sky that she could see were hazy and grey, and no glowing orb was visible. At any rate, the trees obscured her view.

Her name was Olive Parker, and she was thirteen years old. She’d been wandering for several hours. She didn’t know how she had come to this rather strange place; she only knew it had happened suddenly. One second she was stepping out her own front door; the next, she felt a strange tugging sensation throughout her body, and suddenly she was here, under these ashy grey trees. That was strange enough, and troublesome—to put it mildly!—but she had recovered quickly enough, and started walking. There were paths through the trees; she had found herself on one upon arriving. Surely they must lead somewhere.

Surely not, it seemed now. For the hundredth time, she pulled her cell phone from her pocket, and checked its GPS. As every time before, it searched the skies for a signal, and then came up blank. NO SATELLITE DETECTED. How could that be? There were always satellites in the sky, right?

She paused and looked around. The woods were dark now, and the light of her cell phone didn’t help her night vision. She pointed it toward the ground. In the dimness around her—there! Was that movement? Yes. Something… it was gone, whatever it was. Nothing too large; maybe a rabbit?

She resumed walking, using the cell phone’s screen to illuminate the ground at her feet. The roots of the trees didn’t seem to encroach on the paths, but one couldn’t be too careful. At the rate she was going, if she tripped, she’d cut herself, and get an infection and die, all before she got out of these woods. Well, that was a morbid thought. Anything, though, to divert her mind from one small but frightening truth:

There hadn’t been any wildlife around during the day.

Something dashed through the undergrowth to her left. She whirled toward it, bringing the phone up, but saw nothing. The light didn’t penetrate far into the trees anyway. She kept walking.

The woods at night were scary enough if vacant. No thirteen-year-old would ever want to admit that, but anyone would feel it. Worry turned to anxiety. She picked up the pace, though she still had no idea where she was going.

A sound brought her up short, and she froze in place. No; two sounds. Something was moving, pacing her, on the left; and something else was to her right—and moving closer.

Olive had reached the end of her endurance. She broke and ran. The light from her phone swung wildly as her arms pumped in counterpoint with her legs. The creatures on either side exploded through the brush, passing her and weaving—were they going to cut her off? She changed directions, darting down a side path to the right, heading downhill now. Ahead, she could see the faint glimmer of water—a pond, maybe? She crashed toward it.

Something huge and dark leaped onto the path ahead of her. She screamed, and darted left; she felt the wind of its massive paw swipe past her face, just missing. She blundered through the undergrowth, branches tearing at her clothes. Another creature appeared before her, all eyes and teeth; she spun to the right and ran toward the pond again, breaking out onto another path.

Ahead she could see the water, and an old wooden jetty that tilted out into the center. Something in the back of her mind registered that the water level was down from its original level; the jetty sat at an odd angle. A few feet from its end was a long, muddy rock that ordinarily (she guessed) would have been underwater. With the jetty, it made a passage across the narrow waist of the pond; she’d be able to run straight across with only a couple of hops.

She broke into the clearing around the pond and raced onto the jetty, feet thumping on the old, rotting wood. She risked a glance back as the two creatures burst out behind her; one was tall and wolfish, with matted fur and freakishly long limbs; the other was stumpy and reptilian, but with abnormally powerful legs and too many teeth and eyes. Both skidded and came up short at the water’s edge; neither seemed willing to risk the jetty, as they split and started around the sides of the pond at a run.

Olive leaped onto the rock, nearly falling into the water. She raced across and leaped onto the opposite bank, and glanced left at the reptilian creature—just in time to see the woods on that side fill with fire, engulfing the creature. The light dazzled her, but she could hear it howling in pain as it caught fire and burned. The source of the flames couldn’t be seen—what could cause that outburst? A flamethrower? Where was this place?! She scrambled up the hill away from the water.

The wolf creature bounded after her—and still there was nowhere to go, no place of safety. She could hear it getting closer, panting and growling. Any second now…

She raised the brightness on the phone screen as high as it would go. If only this one had a flashlight setting… At the last second, she spun and thrust it toward the creature’s face. The sudden brightness stunned it, and it stopped short and yowled in pain, clawing at its face. While it stood there, she turned and ran again. She made a dozen paces before it shook off the pain and came after her.

That trick wouldn’t work again. She wouldn’t get away this time. She could feel it closing the gap: nine paces. Eight. Seven…

Something—no, someone—caught her and shoved her past. She stumbled and nearly fell as the man wrenched the phone from her hand. There was no time to scream; she only managed to look back. She saw the light from the phone blossom in the man’s hand, illuminating his form; he wore a dark cloak with the hood up, but he glanced back just long enough to reveal his face, which was set in determination—but very human. Then her attention jerked back to the phone, for it was growing.

In the man’s hand, the phone expanded, blooming out as new panels unfolded from it. It became a shield of metal, glass, and plastic, pointing toward the onrushing creature. Then, it exploded with light, catching the monster in a beam of sunlike brilliance that spilled out to light the forest all around. The creature yowled and twisted, caught in the light as in a net; and its fur began to smoke. Its thrashings grew more intense; and then, finally, it burst into flames. When the light faded, and the creature’s remains fell to the ground, little remained besides charred bones.

Olive stood, dumbfounded, thinking only that she was glad to be alive. And then, the man turned to her.

“You’ve had a terrible night, haven’t you?” he said.

***

It was never easy to have one’s world expanded—and so much the more, when it was being doubled. The man walked Olive out of the woods, joined along the way by a woman in roughspun clothes, leather boots, and red gauntlets that covered her forearms and hands but left her fingers bare. “I’m Alric,” he explained, “and this is Joanna.” Then they had proceeded to upset everything she knew about the world.

When learning that she had arrived under such mysterious circumstances, Alric had explained that the Earth she knew was only one of two worlds. The forest in which they walked existed in its twin, which he called the Drylands. He explained that the two were very similar, but that some things—like the land around her home, and this forest—didn’t match up exactly. Stranger still, some people—but only from Earth, never from the Drylands—had the ability to pass between the two worlds. “That’s what you’ve done, it seems,” he said.

When Olive asked how they knew to find her, he grew chagrined. “We didn’t,” he said. “That was an accident, though a lucky one. We were on a mission.”

“A mission?”

Joanna took up the story. “We were sent to capture a rogue Zoomancer.”

While Earth produced the magic to travel between worlds, she said, the Drylands produced a different power. The Five Magicks, she said, existed in a scattering of the population, and in different proportions. By far the most common was the power that she herself wielded: Pyromancy, the mastery of fire. It was she who had set the reptilian creature alight; and she had stayed behind afterward to keep the forest from burning. As a result, she hadn’t been on hand to stop the wolf creature. There was Enviromancy, those who could control plant life and the weather; they were still common, but tended to die young, as their powers would spiral upward in strength until they became impossible to control. There were Psychomancers, the rarest form of all; these incredibly rare men and women could control the minds of those around them, and were almost universally to be feared, as their power corrupted them. Then there were Zoomancers, those who controlled and manipulated life. Not as rare as Psychomancers, but far less common that Enviromancers, these mages had the power to change and control living creatures, creating wonders…or abominations. This Zoomancer had gone a bit crazy with power, and had begun to attack the surrounding towns; and so they had been sent to deal with him. He had yet to be caught, but they were close now. It was his creatures that had chased Olive in the forest.

“But what about the fifth magic?” Olive said. “That’s you, isn’t it?” she said to Alric.

He nodded. “My magic is called Technomancy. Not long ago, there were thought to be only four magicks. Technomancy was discovered by a man we call the Engineer; or rather, rediscovered, as it was lost long ago. He taught it to many of us with the aptitude, and we teach others. It is the power to work with machinery; to understand it instinctively, and change it, and use it for our purposes. Like when I took the thing you carry—a telephone, I think it is called?—and changed it into a weapon to burn the abomination.” He smiled. “It’s a good thing you had it in your hand. My powers need something to work with—I can’t create machines from thin air. I expected some machines in the Zoomancer’s stronghold, but I wasn’t expecting to need to carry any on our journey. Without your machine, I would have been left to face the monster with knives only.”

They had reached the edge of the forest; and now they stepped out onto a track of beaten dirt. Above, the clouds had broken, and a nearly-full moon cast a silvery light. “So, what do I do now?” Olive said. “Can you get me home?”

The duo exchanged a look. “No, we can’t,” Joanna said. “If we had the power to travel between the worlds, we could take you home. But, only people born in your world can possess that power.”

“But, you can get yourself there,” Alric said. “This may have been your first time, but the fact that you got here means you have the ability.” He paused. “I don’t know how to walk you through it. I only know you have to intend to go. Perhaps think about it.”

“Like Dorothy,” Olive said. Seeing their blank looks, she added, “The Wizard of Oz? ‘There’s no place like home, there’s no place like…’ Never mind. Anyway, I’ll try.” She looked at each of them in turn. “Will you stick around until I see if it works?”

“Of course,” Joanna said. Olive nodded, and—thinking it would help her concentration—closed her eyes.

After a moment she looked up. “What if I come back here? What if I can’t help it?”

“Then you’ll be able to go home again,” Alric said. “Each time will make it easier. And if you are here and in need of help, head for the town of Ashdale, in that direction,” he said, pointing down the road. “Anyone there can point you to us, and we’ll help you.”

“But you should try not to come back,” Joanna added soberly. “This world is not a safe place for those who can travel between the worlds. Not now, anyway.” She exchanged a grim look with Alric.

Olive, for her part, let that go; and a moment later, she winked out of existence.

***

“Do you think she’ll listen?” Alric said. “That she’ll stay in her world?”

“No,” Joanna said as they started back into the forest. “They never do, especially when they’re young.”

“And you know this because you’ve met so many travelers?”

“No!” she said. “I mean, only one before this girl. But I hear it’s that way.” She grew serious. “Alric, if she comes back, and is captured, they’ll kill her. You’ve heard the rumors.”

“I know,” he said. “Joanna…we saved her life. We’re responsible for her now. If she comes back… we have to try to protect her. And you know the trouble that might cause.”

“I know.” There was nothing more to say after that; and they each walked alone with their thoughts.

***

Olive arrived, disoriented again, on a bare patch of paved street. It took a moment to get her bearings; and then she realized she was about three miles from home. Her parents would be worried sick…

She stopped in the light of a streetlamp and pulled out her phone. Alric had changed it back so thoroughly that she could almost believe none of it had happened. Still, here it was, nearly midnight… and a quick check of her GPS confirmed her location. She was most definitely back on Earth.

Strange as this excursion was, it was over now. Time to bite the bullet… taking a moment to compose what she hoped would be a believable story about getting lost, she dialed her mother’s number to ask to be picked up. As it rang, by the light of her phone, she started to walk.

Short Story: Performance Review

Lately I’ve been giving the lion’s share of my time and energy to the Time Lord Archives, my Doctor Who-themed blog.  As a result, things have been looking pretty dead around here this year, and that’s unfortunate.  Still, I haven’t forgotten this blog or those who follow it; and so, here’s a new short story.  This story, Performance Review, comes courtesy of a writing prompt from Reddit’s /r/WritingPrompts subreddit (although I haven’t posted the story there–it’s exclusively here for now!).  The prompt in question, submitted by user Mistah_Blue, reads: “It’s common knowledge that lab accidents sometimes result in superpowers.  You’re repeatedly trying to engineer lab accidents in order to gain them. Much to your disappointment however, all your accidents just result in monumental scientific discoveries.”  Happy reading!

Superhero

Artist unknown.  Picture borrowed without permission from the website of consulting firm Travois.

 

“John,” the man in the lab coat and tie said, “you know why I’ve called you here, don’t you?”

The man across the desk was younger by a good fifteen years, and his lab coat was considerably more rumpled. He slumped in his chair and gave a half-hearted nod.  “Yessir, Dr. Corbin.  My performance review.”

The older gave him an impassive look, and then glanced down at the floor beside his chair. “That’s right…the dreaded annual review!  Now, don’t be intimidated.” From the floor, he picked up an absurdly large and overstuffed file folder, and set it on the desk.  It made a disconcerting thump, and John jumped in his chair a little.  “Let’s get started, shall we?” He opened the file and perused the top page.  “Now you joined us last year—well, of course—from one of our subsidiary internship programs.  Very high marks, as I recall.  But you’ve, ah, had an eventful year! Why don’t you tell me a little about it?”

John remained sullen and silent. After a moment, Dr. Corbin looked back down at the file, then back up.  “John, I want you to understand that I’m not here to make you nervous.  Your work here isn’t in jeopardy—in fact, your performance has been spectacular beyond anyone’s expectations.  It’s remarkable, really.  You have nothing to worry about.”  He paused and pushed his glasses up on his nose.  “What I want to talk about is how this happened.  Your review is excellent, so we can get that out of the way.  I really want to hear your take on your experiences here.  Fair enough?”

John nodded again, and finally looked up. “What do you want to know?”

That seemed to be the cue for which Corbin was waiting. He flipped a few pages in the folder, and then planted his index finger on an entry.  “Well, alright.  Let’s start with the fusion incident.  This happened, I believe, about a month after you joined us.  What happened there?”

“The experiment failed,” John muttered.

“Failed?” Corbin seemed shocked. “What do you mean?”

John sighed. “It was like this, sir.  Do you remember Jeremy DuPont?”

Corbin nodded. “The so-called Atom Man.  He actually interned in the same program as you, a few years earlier, though he went on to a different employer before his…accident.”

“Right. Anyway, sir, as you know, all of his research notes were famously lost in the lab fire that sparked his new, um, career.  Well, I thought that I could reconstruct his research.  There were certain markers in his statements about the work that led me to a certain path of study—“

“Wait a minute,” Corbin said. “Are you saying you intended to repeat the experiments that turned Jeremy DuPont into…” He trailed off.

“…A superhero,” John said.

“Yes, that.”

“Yessir.”

Corbin gave him an even gaze. “You are aware of the phrase ‘lab accident,’ aren’t you?”

“Yes. I’m aware that it was an accident that gave Atom—that gave Jeremy his unusual abilities.  But I thought that the process could be standardized, and made safe.  Imagine it, sir! The ability to create superpowers on demand!  To give people the ability to—“

“—The ability to fly, but also to constantly emit lethal levels of radiation, such that one can’t have anything approximating a normal life?”

John dropped his gaze. “Nobody’s perfect, sir.”

“No, I suppose not.” He returned to the file for a moment. “At any rate, there WAS a lab accident during your research.”

“Yes. But the experiment was a failure, like I said.”

“A failure? Because it didn’t make you into a new Atom Man?” John shrugged. Dr. Corbin looked incredulously at him.  “John, your accident gave us a stable process for cold nuclear fusion!  That’s one of the greatest and most sought after discoveries of this century.  It’s already revolutionizing the energy industry!”  Seeing that John was unmoved, he sighed.  “Alright, let’s move on.  Tell me about…” He flipped a few more pages.  “The variable-mass experiment.”

“Alright. I had been reading up on the work of Dr. Emilia Nox.  A few years ago she experimented with mass variability through particle acceleration—quantum mass variability, she called it.  She was making very good progress with it, until…well, I suppose you know.”

“A lab accident,” Dr. Corbin said. “Yes, I remember.”

“Right,” John said. “Well, I thought I could expand on her work by incorporating some of the equations about dark matter.  It’s not as though we had access to any, since no one even knew if it really existed, but we know enough about its properties in a mathematical sense.  I figured that I could incorporate some of those equations and overcome some of her hurdles.”

A suspicious look had dawned on Corbin’s face. “Those hurdles you mentioned…those wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that her unfortunate lab accident gave her the power to turn invisible, would they?”

“I’m not sure I’d call it unfortunate, sir. And besides, it’s more to do with her ability to change her mass at will.  That makes her quite a threat to criminals, you know.”

Corbin glanced at the ceiling in a longsuffering gesture. “Superpowers again.  Well, anyway, your calculations must not have worked out as expected, because you encountered the same accident as Dr. Nox—or should I call her by her chosen name, Doctor Night?”

“She’d probably like that, sir. I’ve met her; she seems like a great person.  And anyway, yes, but it was also a failure.”

Corbin consulted his file. “That failure, as you say, resulted in a new, lab-reproducible, commercially-feasible method for not only detecting dark matter, but isolating samples for use.  As I understand it, as soon as the trial phases clear, that discovery alone stands to make you a very rich man, John.  I’m not sure how it’s a failure.”

Again, John shrugged. “It’s a nice accomplishment, but it wasn’t my goal, sir.”

“A nice acc…oh, never mind. Let’s go on.”

“If you insist, sir.”

“Well, that covers your first two months with us. In your third month…” He searched the file.  “Ah!  You switched your focus from physics to artificial intelligence.  It’s good to see a multidisciplinarian! What prompted the change?”

“Well, sir, I thought that since I’d had a few noteworthy failures already, I must be doing something wrong. I figured that if I could set up a workable AI, it could help me with monitoring and troubleshooting on my other goals.  The problem with current-generation AI, as you know, is that it inevitably goes rogue in some way.  There’s that famous case of the chatbot that turned into a neo-Nazi, and those security robots that killed themselves…and that’s just what we’ve seen on a small scale.  Large-scare AI could easily try to take over, so we don’t dare risk it.  Well, I thought I might get around that by keeping a human element in the system.  I wanted the AI to be dependent on a human brain, not for its processing power, but for its existence.  If a human is in the loop, he or she can shut down the AI with a thought if anything starts to go wrong.  So, I started looking at brain-computer interfaces.”

“It’s a novel approach,” Corbin admitted. “What made you think of that?”

“I, uh…well, sir, do you recall a situation where a microprocessor array blew up in a lab assistant’s face? This would have been a Microsoft project, about ten years ago.”

Corbin thought for a moment. “Ten years ago…ten years…oh, yes, I do recall it, it was a very…wait a minute.” He sat up straighter and shot a look at John.  “You’re talking about Technoman!  The processors penetrated the tech’s brain, and gave him the ability to interact with electronic systems by thought alone.  He calls himself Technoman now, and fights cybercrime, right?”

“That would be the one, sir. Anyway, I thought that if I could implant the processors rather than have it happen by accident—“

“But there was an accident.  A processor array did explode, and you were struck by a flying processor.  I remember it now.  You were out on medical leave for a few weeks.” He arched an eyebrow.  “No Technoman?”

“No Technoman, sir. Even though the processor couldn’t be removed.” He scratched at his temple.  “It still itches.”

“But this was a success for you as well,” Corbin said. “When the lab was burning, your AI made the leap to the local mainframe and took charge of the fire suppression system, ensuring that you lived.  It saved your life; and when questioned later, it expressed loyalty to you.  Examination of its code revealed elements that were clearly not designed, but that in hindsight render it both safe and loyal to humanity—elements that could only have come from its brief contact with your brain.  You advanced the science of artificial intelligence by at least two decades.  I suppose you’re going to call that a failure?”

“Yes sir.”

Why?”

“I needed that AI for a lab assistant. But now it’s so busy being examined and studied that I can never get access to it for my work!”

Corbin sat back, unsure how to proceed. Finally he spoke.  “John…I think that you and this company may have different goals.”

John looked up, alarmed. “Sir!  That’s not true.  You’re not…terminating me, are you?”

“Oh, no, not that.” Corbin shook his head.  “John, we’re a research institution here.  We innovate.  We make discoveries.  Usually those discoveries are incremental, because that’s how science works—well, except in your case.  But you, John…I really think you’re just here to get superpowers.”

John’s face turned red. “Sir, I—“

“No need to defend yourself,” Corbin said. “It’s reasonable enough.  We live in a day when there’s an established history of lab accidents granting powers to individuals.  And it’s a good thing too—with most superheroes having a scientific background, they’re more likely to use their powers responsibly, don’t you think?”

He leaned back and put his hands on the desk. “Your goal is noble, John, but it conflicts with ours.  And I have to admit, I’m conflicted about it, because while you’re causing what is frankly an obscene number of accidents, your results are amazing.  Here, look.”  Flipping through the file, he stopped at section after section.  “May of last year, the monofilament situation.  You wanted a way to strengthen your own skeletal structure with carbon monofilaments; what you got—after blowing up the extrusion chamber—was a brand-new method for structuring the atoms in monofilaments, increasing the tensile strength by a factor of a thousand.  June: One of the technicians says that you mentioned wanting the ability to teleport.  Your experiment put you in the hospital overnight, but it gave us the ability to carry out quantum teleportation on the macro scale, albeit only on small objects—but still, that’s unheard of!  July: You wanted to be able to fly, so you worked on manipulation of energy fields in localized areas.  We lost eighty thousand dollars of lab equipment on that one, but we can now generate stable force fields!  Shall I go on?”

“No sir,” John said.

Corbin shook his head. “John, do you understand what all of this means?”

At last, John sat up straight, even defiantly. His face was red, and there were tears in his eyes.  “Yes! It means that none of my theories were true! I haven’t been able to complete a single experiment all year, and besides, I’ve caused lab accidents every single time!”

Corbin gazed at him, and a smile twitched up the corners of his mouth. “No, John,” he said quietly.  “It means you don’t need to look for superpowers.  You already have one.”

That was not what John expected to hear. “I…what?”

“Yes. John, you’re the luckiest man in the world.”  He held up a finger.  “Think about it.  First, you survive accident after accident with little more than a few superficial injuries.  And on the one occasion when your injuries were serious, you survived something that would have killed anyone else.  Moreover, everyone else present for any of these accidents has survived, so clearly your luck is communicable to those around you.  And last of all, you’ve had an unbroken string of amazing scientific discoveries, all quite by accident! Now, what would you call that if not superpowered luck?”

John was silent for a long minute. “Well, when you put it that way,” he said at last.

“I do.” Corbin sat back.  “Now get back to work.”

John’s jaw fell open. “So…you’re not going to fire me?”

“I said that earlier, didn’t I? I’m not going to fire you.  In fact, I’m authorizing a raise.  HR will get with you about the details.  Now, go do some experiments.  Just,” he added, “do them in a different building, will you?”